Monthly Archives: July 2016
This is what I have learned and try to practise – Admitting my mistakes

PhD research identified 10 key leadership practices that engender trust, paving the way to compelling leadership. Admitting mistakes is one of them.

If you are my age you might remember the TV sitcom “Happy Days”. The Fonz, played by Henry Winkler, was the guy everyone wanted to be. People idolised him. But his flaw was his inability to utter the word, “sorry”. He could never get the word out. Why is admitting a mistake so difficult? What actually is at risk?

I have seen the darkest side of life. For the past three years I have been involved in the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Each week I sit with at least one victim of abuse as they share their story. Every story is the same in what the victim seeks: answers and an apology. They will accept nothing but a full and frank admission of guilt.

So why is it so difficult for a leader to admit their mistakes? Why is it that people in power can never confess? Because it takes incredible courage. No one in position of power and responsibility wants to be wrong. An admission of fault could be viewed as incompetence or guilt. In their mind, at risk is a loss of face, a loss of pride, humiliation.

But the reality is that we are all human. We are fallible. Even the very best leader makes mistakes. However, contrary to our rational thought, people won’t think less of us if we acknowledge our errors. They will actually think more of us because humility and honesty are qualities admired far more highly than arrogance.

People see through a facade of pride or political spin. Remember Bill Clinton, “I have never had sexual relations with that woman”. We all knew he did. People don’t care as much for the mistake you make as they do for your honesty. Honesty makes us real.

The very best leaders are never focused on his or her own ego. They are solely focused on the needs of the people they serve, no matter the cost or sacrifice. If the other person truly matters more than you, if you truly are a servant leader, you will put aside your pride, apologise and seek to repair what is damaged.

The act of admitting mistakes requires incredible humility. Humility and honesty, the act of being vulnerable, unlocks deeper levels of trust, paving the way to more authentic relationships and more powerful leadership. Arrogance and denial close the door on those opportunities .

What’s really at risk when we fail to admit our mistakes: real leadership and the loss of deeper relationships.

This is what I have learned and try to practise about: Coaching

PhD research identified 10 key leadership practices that engender trust. Coaching is one.

While many people would describe me as a confident leader, underneath the facade I am constantly second guessing myself. It took me years to understand what it is to coach someone else. I never felt that I had anything of value to give, and I certainly never saw, or see myself as the expert.

It has taken a long time, but I have learnt that to coach someone else does not mean that I have to be the expert. I don’t have to have all the answers. Coaching is not about giving advice or providing a person with a solution.

Coaching is about empowering the other person to find their inner confidence. Coaching is about helping the other person grow. Coaching is about unlocking his or her potential and finding their own solutions.

Everyone is different. We each have a unique personality. Who we are is shaped by the experiences we have in life, and we all live different lives. The same applies to leadership. There are basic principles and practices, but we will all bring our own style to the role. If I was ever tempted to give advice it is possible that that advice wouldn’t be as effective for the person if they took my approach for themselves. Good coaches don’t try and create a ‘mini me’.

Coaching is unlocking a person’s potential to maximise their growth (Whitemore)

A coach asks great questions, firstly to help the person reflect deeply. Questions help the person cut to the heart of the problem they are dealing with. Great questioning helps identify what is a risk.

A coach then provokes the person to brainstorm solutions, identifying the strengths and weaknesses of each. A coach then helps the person pick their preferred solution and encourages them to set it in motion.

A good coach rarely, if ever, suggests solutions. They listen carefully. They help the person articulate how they are feeling. They help the person understand themselves better, to see themselves from a different position. They encourage the person to find their own inner strength, courage and confidence, and to believe in themselves.

A good coach doesn’t have to be an expert at a job, but does have to be an expert listener and questioner. This is what I have learnt and try to practice about coaching.

This is what I have learned and try to practise about: Listening

The role of any leader is just two-fold: to provide a compelling vision of the future that people aspire to attain and, to build trust so those people will be willing to take the journey with you.

Research has identified 10 key practices that build trust in a leader. One of those is listening.

I have learnt much about the skill of listening over the years. Had I been born later than I was I might have been diagnosed with ADHD. My mind is going at a million miles an hour, processing the next task, generating new ideas, thinking about the next thing.

I used to be easily distracted when someone was speaking to me. I’d discretely try and look at the time. I’d get an idea and have to repeat it over and over in my mind so as not to forget it while I waited for the conversation to be over. I didn’t hear what the person sharing their life with me was trying to say. I was ignoring them.

Many of us, including me, listen in order to prepare our response. While the other person is speaking we are ‘patiently’ waiting for our turn to impart our opinion, our argument, our justification, or our ‘wisdom’. After all, leaders are meant to have the answers, aren’t they?

If you were to reflect on the last conversation you had with a person, what percentage of the time were you listening compared to speaking?

Over the years of being a leader I have learnt to minimise what I say. As the leader I don’t have to have all the answers. I have had to work hard at it but great listeners rarely speak. When they do they are primarily asking clarifying questions to gain a better understanding of what the person has said, or, they summarise what they have heard and identified the emotions the person has tried to express. Good listeners speak for less than 20% of the conversation.

Seek first to understand… then to be understood (Covey)

For me this has been really hard, but I have come to realise that more often than not, the other person simply wants to be valued and respected for who they are, for what their reality is and how they feel. They want to be heard. They don’t necessarily want answers or advice, they want to be acknowledged. No one can change how they feel. For them their ‘truth’ is their reality, even if it isn’t my ‘truth’ or reality.

Perhaps my most profound learning has been to realise the healing power of listening. It is an enormous privilege when people share with you their suffering, pain and isolation, their story. To truly listen to another person is to put your existing beliefs at risk. What if the other person is right? What if I have to change my mind? What if I have no answer to this, or I have to apologise?

In Becoming a Person, psychologist Carl Rogers wrote:

If you really understand another person, if you are willing to enter his private world and see the way life appears to him, without any attempt to make evaluative judgements, you run the risk of being changed yourself. This risk of being changed is one of the most frightening prospects most of us face.

The experience of really listening, truly listening has changed me. This is what I have learnt. I try and practise this in every conversation I have.

Rogers C (1961) Becoming a person: A therapist’s view of psychotherapy; 1995 edition. Boston, USA: Houghton Mifflin; page 333.

Education for Peace

Last night I had dinner with a fellow Head Teacher. As we sat in a local restaurant in down town Shinjuku, Japan, he told me about his life growing up in Hiroshima. We had just visited the Atomic-Dome the day before, where world’s first nuclear bomb was detonated unleashing a fireball of 1000 degrees Celsius and winds over 1000km per hour.

While Hidenori wasn’t born when the bomb that annililated 75,000 people in an instant, and killed another 75,000 in the following weeks, his mother was. Her brother was amongst the casualties. She lived some 40km from the epi-centre. After the blast she walked the 40km to try and find him and offer what little help she could to the victims. What she saw was ever etched into her memory: the vision of a young mother walking towards her, her young baby fused to her body, the burns so bad.

This extra-ordinary Head Teacher had recently retired. For the past 37 years he worked for an International School in Tokyo, leading it for the last 10. The School isn’t an International one for expats, but for Japanese, created with the vision for a global education, underpinned with the belief that a greater appreciation and value for different cultures will contribute to a world of peace.

We talked about the importance of education in a world that is constantly traumatised by man’s never-ending greed. Amidst news of yet another terrorist attack and the release of Britain’s Chilcot Report, he spoke about an education that gives students opportunities to make friends across cultures and countries, an education that promotes understanding and peace.

Wise words this retired Head Teacher shared, “We only have a hundred years, we only have one life. We should teach our students to live each day, to be grateful for what they do have, finding beauty, joy and contentment in the little things. We should never allow language, cultural differences or alternate values to be a barrier to friendships that can rest on the beauty of life itself.”

Education should not just be about a country’s economic strategy, but about our humanity. Education should primarily be focused on raising the next generation of people who will inherit the world we leave them. Will that generation repeat the mistakes of the past, or will they truly seek peace?